Mere moments before the start of a Booker T. Washington High School graduation ceremony at Cook Convention Center that was made something more than routine by the presence of President Barack Obama as commencement speaker, Memphis mayor A C Wharton had a thought about the effect of it all on his oft-distressed town:
"This just shows that no matter what your physical circumstances are, you can make it. It shows that Memphis does matter. His presence here today shows that. Memphis is the focus of the world today."
In truth, more than one recent circumstance had made Memphis the focus of the world — or at least of the nation — in recent weeks. Simultaneous with the anticipation of the president's appearance here, as the prize for Booker T. Washington's having won the 2011 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, the city had gained abundant publicity for two other circumstances. One was the dramatic and unexpected playoff run by the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies; another was the 100-year flood that had left the engorged Mississippi River and its tributaries lapping ominously at adjacent low-level land surfaces. On a given day or night, TV channel surfers might be treated both to the pandemonium going on inside FedExForum as the Grizzlies did their heroic best to advance to the Western Conference finals and to the image of Al Roker or Diane Sawyer finding a deep enough patch of shorewater to wade in, thereby simulating a little bit of faux Katrina.
In the near euphoria generated by Obama's visit and by his tribute to BTW's up-by-the-bootstrap academic success, the pain of the Grizzlies' seventh-game loss in the second playoff round to the favored Oklahoma City Thunder was dissipated somewhat, especially since the team's bright promise for the future remains intact.
The flood is a different matter. One of the attendees at Monday's graduation event was Kevin Kane, the able longtime director of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. Kane shared a few thoughts about the triad of recent events here. "It's a mixed bag," Kane said. The president's visit was an obvious bonanza, and the Grizzlies' rise to prominence would eventually generate "millions upon millions of dollars." But: "Obviously, the flood is probably going to cost us some business over the next couple of months. ... The way the national media portrayed that we were in a lot worse shape than we really were is going to be tough for us. There were people who used to live in Memphis calling us, thinking that B.B. King's and places like that were three feet under water. We're going to have to reposition some of our summer advertising. We track reservations to our local hotels. We know the frequency with which they come in, and I can tell you the phones literally quit ringing after about a solid week of that coverage that Memphis was under water and in bad shape."
For all that, Kane said, accentuating the positive, the president's visit to Memphis on BTW's behalf was a "feel-good story" with a positive message about the city and its schools, and that impression will linger, too — hopefully, longer.